Initially, Lockheed estimated that each F-35 would cost $79 million –– already one of the most expensive warplanes ever built. The Air Force’s 2013 budget now estimates the cheapest of the F-35’s three variants will cost nearly $200 million per plane, which includes money spent on research and development as well as long-term maintenance costs. Lockheed, in an estimate based only on nuts and bolts, puts the plane’s price tag closer to $70 million.
In more ways than one, the F-35 also seems similar to the colossally expensive F-22 Raptor, another stealth fighter developed by Lockheed Martin and partially manufactured in Fort Worth, which fast outgrew initial cost estimates.
The military had high hopes for the F-22, but Pentagon officials slashed the program in 2010 because the exorbitant bill outweighed the plane’s benefits. Shortly before the end of the F-22 program, the average cost of each plane was a whopping $373 million –– which is why only 187 of the originally proposed 500 jets were actually built.
Though the F-35’s price tag isn’t quite that high, at least not yet, the Pentagon is planning on purchasing thousands more of the Joint Strike Fighter.
That would be a mistake, according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. Wheeler called the F-35 project a “boondoggle” that should be thrown in the trash bin.
“The F-22 embodies a series of classic Pentagon procurement mistakes that should never be repeated,” wrote Wheeler and Pierre Sprey, who helped create the F-16, in a 2009 opinion column for Jane’s Defense Weekly. After detailing the cost and performance problems of the F-22, they added: “All of this, and almost certainly worse, is true for the F-35.”
Over the last 10 years, the total cost of building 2,400 new F-35s to restock the U.S. military’s aerial inventory has nearly doubled to about $400 billion. Adding in the Pentagon’s own estimates of operation and maintenance costs over the next 50-plus years, the total reaches a mind-blowing $1.5 trillion –– larger than the gross domestic product of Spain.
There is debate about how well the F-35 actually performs once it’s off the ground.
Wheeler suggests that the U.S. Department of Defense hold a competitive “fly before you buy” competition with prototypes from other jet makers. In that situation, “the F-35 will flunk immediately,” he said earlier this month.
Congress has grown concerned as well. The Government Accountability Office, which investigates public funding for Congress, reported in March that the plane’s performance “has not been good,” achieving only six of 11 goals last year, with the most complex tests still ahead.
Perhaps the largest worry is that Lockheed is manufacturing the planes before the design is fully developed and tested. By simultaneously producing and developing the planes, costs were supposed to stay down because sophisticated designs and simulators would prevent mistakes during construction. That hasn’t happened.
Lockheed has built more than 60 F-35s thus far, but the planes continue to be tweaked and tested, once again driving up costs.
The Senate Armed Services Committee reported a few weeks ago that it was troubled by the average rate of scrap, re-work, and repair at the Fort Worth plant and that an “inattention to production quality” had resulted in a potentially serious problem with an aperture that plays a critical role in the plane’s much-lauded electronic warfare capabilities.
Wheeler and Sprey described the F-35 as “hopeless” as a close fighter supporting U.S. ground troops and a “disaster” as an air-to-air dogfighter.
Responsibility for the program’s setbacks lies with the Pentagon, not Lockheed, argued Thompson, who said the unnecessary caution of “federal managers” is creating the problems.
“The more testing you do, the safer it is, but eventually you spend so much money on testing, the plane becomes too expensive,” he said.
Lately things have been getting better with the F-35 program, said spokesman Stout. The plane has been performing great in the last three years, though the pressure has increased as well, he said. “In terms of capability, the F-35 is everything we ever promised it was and more.”
The last time a U.S. fighter plane was shot down by ground forces was probably in 1991 during the Gulf War, likely the only downed plane of the conflict. At the Air Force Academy last year, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that “there hasn’t been an Air Force airplane lost in air combat in 40 years or an American soldier attacked by enemy aircraft since Korea.”
The United States, the world heavyweight champion of air combat, has ruled the skies for half a century. The wars in the Middle East, the longest in the nation’s history and now opposed by the vast majority of the American people, rely increasingly on unmanned drones rather than fighter jets. And the countries with resources to build sophisticated jets tend to have nuclear weapons, which make a conventional war somewhat distasteful for everyone involved.
Such is the world the F-35 will patrol when a significant number of the planes become fully operational, possibly in 2019, though that’s already seven years behind schedule.
Proponents argue that the plane, conceived as a multi-role stealth fighter, can be used for a variety of military purposes, but ultimately it’s meant for conventional warfare.
Given that fact, one of the more likely opponents for the United States in an old-school dogfight in the 21st century would be China, Thompson said.
America’s fighter planes are, on average, about 25 years old. The military needs new planes, and it’s too late to start over now with a different program, he said.
As America nears the end of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense spending should be reduced, but the F-35 is still necessary for the wars of the future, he said. “You can’t win wars today unless you control the air over the battlefield.”
If the F-35 were scrapped, “In a dozen years from now, we’re going to lose a war because then our planes are going to be shot down,” the consultant said. “If you’re fighting Iraq, you’re probably going to be fine. If you’re fighting China, you’re a dead duck.”
Just last year, defense analysts predicted the end to America’s aerial superiority after China staged a test flight of its J-20 stealth jet prototype during a visit by Gates.